Sholem Asch’s novel Mary has to follow the familiar Biblical narrative about the mother of Jesus, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprises. Before you open the cover, you know what’s going to happen.
The most intriguing part of the plot is in how the young Jesus grows into a knowledge of his destiny. The explanations Asch has Mary and Joseph give to Jesus’ questions about the scriptures are thoughtful and thought-provoking.
As in most religious novels, the interest is in the detail rather than the main story. Asch pads his tale with tidbits about geography, climate, history, and contemporary customs. While I’m glad to know Jews were required to feed their animals before they ate, I don’t find that fact particularly exciting.
None of Asch’s characters seems like a real person—not even the people who were real people.
Asch invents Nazarenes in an attempt to bring in some local color. But instead of creating a sense of reality, the invented characters read like a list of dramatis persona.
Asch has characters speak long passages from the Torah and other religious materials, which only makes them sound more fake.
Mary is somewhat interesting, but never entertaining.
By Sholem Asch
Trans. by Leo Steinberg
G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1949
1949 bestseller #3
My grade: C-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The #2 bestseller for 1949, The Big Fisherman, was #1 in 1948. Click this link to will find my review from last year.
Writing fictional biography is a hazardous occupation.
Authors are expected to stick to account plausiably for all the mistakes, foibles, and inconsistencies that make the characters interesting, while sticking to historical facts.
Dear and Glorious Physician illustrates just how difficult the task is.
The physican is, of course, Luke, widely believed to have penned the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. Taylor Caldwell’s task is to show how a Greek doctor came to know all the history in those books.
Caldwell has Luke raised in the home of a Roman soldier, mentored by a Chaldean physician, taught by Greek philosopher, educated in Egypt. As Luke moves through the Mediterranean world, Caldwell makes each locale’s sights and sounds come alive.
Unfortunately, she is less successful at making Luke himself come alive.
In the picture Caldwell draws, Luke is a loner who makes friends everywhere he goes. He’s afraid of dogs, but cuddles wild jackels. If that seems plausible to you, you’ll probably accept that is a world-class athlete (judo’s his speciality), handsome as Apollo ,the confidant of Caesar, and that he can can raise the dead when his brilliant medical skills fail.
Dear and Glorious Physician is worth reading for the setting and scenery.
Look elsewhere for entertainment or for better understanding of people.
Dear and Glorious Physician
By Taylor Caldwell
1959 bestseller # 7
My Grade: C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
If you can imagine a novel written by Alfred Hitchcock, you’ll understand the fascination of Louis Bromfield’s 1928 bestseller The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg.
Annie Spragg, an American, dies in a small Italian village. Her body shows what villagers say are stigmata. Mr. Winnery, who dabbles in writing, decides to investigate the “miracle.”
He learns Annie was one of 13 legitimate children of a frontier cult leader murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him. After their parents’ deaths, Annie and Uriah, her creepy preacher-brother who idolized their mother, lived together until Uriah was murdered.
Suspicion fell on Annie. She was stripped, examined, and questioned. Investigators found she had unusual scars. There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.
No one was ever charged in Uriah’s murder.
Like a horde of letters and newspaper clippings in somebody’s attic, Annie Spragg leaves plenty of clues but no conclusion.
Bromfield increases the fascination of the story by his squeaky-clean presentation. Readers grasping for clues can’t be sure whether the sordid story they infer is in the material or in their own dirty minds.
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg
By Louis Bromfield
Grosset & Dunlap, 1928
My Grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The Bridge of San Luis Rey won Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. The novel has since been ignored in favor of less literary but more entertaining reading.
The story is this. In 1714, a woven-willow bridge outside Lima broke plunging five people to their deaths. A monk who saw them fall decides to prove that the collapse was not an accident but a demonstration of God’s perfect wisdom.
Brother Juniper spends six years investigating. He accumulates mountains of information, but never gets any closer to knowing why those people died rather than some other five people.
When the Inquisition burns Brother Juniper and his book, he’s not even sure of the purity of his own motives.
After Brother Juniper’s death the paths of those the victims left behind cross just as the victims’ paths had. And an observer wouldn’t be able to say what, if any, purpose their lives served.
Like Brother Juniper’s book, Wilder’s book is a report, not a memoir. He builds his characters from bits; they aren’t organic wholes. And, like Brother Juniper, Wilder tacks a vague moral on the tail end of ponderous prose.
Unlike Brother Juniper’s book, Wilder’s novel doesn’t require burning. It’s so dull, it will just crumble away.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
By Thornton Wilder
Grosset & Dunlap, c1927
#1 bestseller in 1928
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
In The Big Fisherman, Lloyd C. Douglas explores the rise of Christianity in a complicated story tangled around the figure of Simon Peter.
I learned lots of trivia, like the fact that multinational crowds came to Jerusalem for a big, annual Pentecost camel auction, but I didn’t enjoy the novel in which Douglas package it.
Douglas gets his characters out of central casting. He runs them around to show the human side of historical events.
But when Douglas tries to transform Peter from impetuous braggart to martyred saint, he makes the apostle seem hokey.
Unfortunately, that’s not all that seems hokey.
There’s a love story that reads like a patchwork of scenes from bad movies. The girl, known as Fara or Esther, is an Arab Jew who vows to kill her father, Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. To get to him, she disguises herself a boy.
Fara’s boyfriend, Volti, follows her to Judea to assassinate Antipas himself. The Romans get suspicious and lock him up. But Volti is such a gallant guy, they let him out so he can kill Antipas, who in their view needs killing.
I kept reading to see what happens to Fara and Volti — but nothing does.
If you’ll excuse the pun, The Big Fisherman just peters out.
The Big Fisherman
By Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1948
Bestseller # 1 for 1948
My Grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton’s fascinating tale of Puritan America.
Elizabeth, the novel’s heroine, is niece and daughter-in-law to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Widowed before she reaches America, Elizabeth marries Robert Feake, a strange, weak young man. The Feakes flee Massachusetts when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft. They settle in Greenwich, buy land, and seek the protection of Dutch citizenship.
Unhinged by an Indian attack, Robert returns to England. In order to get a divorce so she can marry again, Elizabeth says she committed adultery. That lie almost does her in. Elizabeth and her third husband, William Hallet, barely escape being tried for both adultery and bigamy.
Beneath all the exciting stuff—passion, witchcraft, massacres, madness—is a fascinating picture of Puritans. Far from being united by faith, they bickered constantly among themselves over doctrinal points and united only in contempt for Catholics, Baptists, and other heathen.
Readers would never guess this story wasn’t invented, but the facts, dates, and circumstances are all true. Sexton said the story didn’t need any additions to make it exciting. (She’s right.) She even incorporated characters’ written words into the novel’s dialog.
Don’t miss The Winthrop Woman. It’s a great read.
The Winthrop Woman
by Anya Seton
Houghton, Mifflin 1958
1958 Bestseller #8
My grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The Miracle of the Bells is a standard religious novel to which Russell Janney has added a dollop of humor. The humor increases the novel’s appeal but can’t disguise its poor quality.
Press agent William “Spats” Dunnigan had met Olga when she was an innocent waif determined to be a star. He felt sorry for her and made sure she had a job to keep her in groceries. When opportunity arose, he catapulted Olga from stand-in to staring role.
Shortly after the film shoot ended, Olga died from lung damage suffered as a child. While explaining to the town priest that Olga wanted the church bells rung for her funeral, Spats gets an idea. He’ll have all the bells in Coaltown rung for four days before the funeral, turning it into a promotion for the film studio.
Spats not only achieves his publicity objectives, but also turns the town upside down. It’s a miracle! But there’s no reason to think Spats is a better man because of it.
If Russell Janney weren’t so clever with his odd characters and funny lines, the novel would fall flat. For substance, readers will have to look elsewhere. The Miracle of the Bells offers nothing but fun.
The Miracle of the Bells
By Russell Janney
Prentice Hall, 1946
#1 bestseller in 1947
My grade: C+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni